“Embarrassing” and “ridiculous.” I’m not sure if these journalists are describing the Daily Northwestern or themselves.

After The Daily Northwestern apologized for actions by its student journalists during a recent campus visit by former attorney general Jeff Sessions, the professional journalists began to pile on.

Robert Feder, known for his coverage of the Chicago media scene, described the Daily’s editorial as “bizzare” and “embarrassing.” Glenn Kessler, the fact checker for The Washington Post (my current employer), said it was a travesty and embarrassment. Stephanie Zimmerman, currently with the Chicago Sun-Times (my former internship employer) and an instructor for Medill’s high school summer journalism program, said it was “ridiculous” and “journalists at @thedailynu should not apologize for DOING THEIR JOB.”

Their words are incredibly disappointing.

None of these journalists appeared to have done any reporting into the underlying circumstances of the issue. The Daily apologized for two separate and specific concerns of their reporting process: First, that they published photographs of student protestors at the event, and second, that they reached out via text to some protestors to ask them for comment.

I’ll address the second concern early, because it’s a pretty simple circumstance: The source of the protestors’ contact information was the University Directory, which is not an open, publicly-accessible data source. The University’s online directory at https://directory.northwestern.edu is available to the public, but information such as physical addresses and phone numbers are only presented to on-campus network users and those who sign in with a Northwestern NetID, not members of the general public. This information is sourced from the many forms that students complete throughout their time at Northwestern, including for emergency contacts.

It is reasonable for all students — including these protestors — to expect that their private data provided to Northwestern for purposes such as campus emergency notifications would not be used by The Daily’s journalists for reporting, and such contact would be seen as an infiltration of privacy, in the same way that any professional journalist should not be using a non-public data source for their reporting. (And if you are, then we do need to be having a conversation — and it’ll be a conversation about journalism ethics, privacy expectations, and the law like GDPR and California’s data protection legislation.)

There’s also a pretty simple response to the professional journalists’ criticism of supposed infringements of the First Amendment: Northwestern University is a private university and the First Amendment does not apply. But I feel that this would be a disingenuous response to their criticisms, because I think they are upset that The Daily has seemingly caved to public pressure and refused to stand up for the principles of the First Amendment as they apply to the freedom of the press.

To this, I respond that the freedom of the press not includes the freedom to publish the news, but the freedom to not publish the news as well. As members of professional news organizations, these journalists should have recognized the right of the newsroom editors to make calls about what is and what is not published, and the right of the same editors to respond to their readers’ criticisms of those decisions.

I have witnessed many meetings where senior editors have decided not to run certain images or videos because they felt the specific impacts on victims outweighed the newsworthiness to the general public. The only difference here is The Daily is doing it after-the-fact, and admitting their first instincts were probably wrong.

The First Amendment’s freedom of the press clause protects journalists from retribution or punishment by the narrow interests of those wielding government power, but does not mean that journalists are immune from the general public’s criticisms of their coverage. In fact, journalists should be hyperaware of and sensitive to criticism, because the public cannot hold journalists accountable through the regular mechanisms of democracy’s government machinery in institutions like Congress.

Nor are journalists an unaccountable arm of the law and the secret police of the government, which is why institutions such as the storied Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications — which, as many of these journalists did correctly note, does not operate The Daily, but is where many of the student editors study — put such heavy emphasis on consequential rights and protections, such as shield laws for journalism, in its courses and teachings.

Many of these professional journalists criticizing The Daily entered the industry during a time when society did not have access to the same technological tools as we do today, such as facial recognition algorithms and tools for large-scale data mining. The best practices of journalism must learn and adapt to these new threats for democracy. If anything, these students have a better understanding of what’s necessary for journalism’s future if our liberal democracy is to survive.

Finally, I’ll note one observation for the pedagogy: Many of the professional journalists criticizing The Daily Northwestern are white. Many of the student editors who signed the Daily’s note are not.

I’ve reminded of this excellent soundbite from Nikole Hannah-Jones: “White journalists’ obsession with objectivity comes from being a white person in a white-dominated country in which all of the laws were in the favor of whiteness.”

These professional’s criticisms of the protestors — that they “should have stayed home” and maybe “wrote a letter” from their dorms — are such patronizing comments about what I know to be a patient and well-informed cross-section of Northwestern’s already exceedingly intellectual community of students. These patronizations are stocked in the same aisle as the “There’s nothing you can do about it” lollipops and the “I’m not a racist but” detergents.

They invalidate these protestors’ activism, they patronize these protestor’s criticisms of Jeff Session’s complicity in the racism, sexism, and encouragement of violence by the Trump administration, and they seek to wash these journalists of the guilt of the media’s historical and continued indifference when it comes to the plight and suffering of the peoples of color, the LGBTQ+ communities, the immigrants and newly-naturalized populations, the poor and the needy, and anybody else who does not look or live life like the senior editors in the offices of these professional newsrooms.

Cut it out, you all. I’m not having it.

The divide between news and editorial


For readers, however, that divide, no matter how firm, is often viewed as a distinction without a difference. “We have readers who’ve been reading the paper their whole lives and who understand those distinctions very well,” says Goldberg of the LA Times. “But, of course, we have plenty of readers who don’t understand the distinctions we’ve spent years and years trying to make…”

I like newspapers. I was the weird guy in high school who had a recurring subscription to the newspaper, and would be found reading the paper in the form room the first thing in the morning. One year, when I was absolutely terrible about it, I kept an entire year’s stash of newspapers in my locker, and didn’t clear it out until the end of the year. (It was a lot of ink and paper.)

I accept, though, that the new Internet age of journalism has meant things are changing. And I think one of the changes lies in newspapers editorials, and the divide — or lack thereof—between the news pages and opinion pages of a newspaper.

Because that’s exactly the point. In a newspaper, you can rely on the position of a piece within the paper — towards the front for news, or the back for opinion — to give you clues about what you’re reading. That distinction does not exist on the web.

We talk about “content” on the web because that’s all the web cares about. The technologies that power the World Wide Web today — HTTP, HTML, WebKit — don’t care about news and editorial, only content. At the end of the day, the web delivers content from server A to consumer’s device B, and no part of the Internet’s infrastructure cares about what the content is.

Which is what?

In a modern day news site (like the Wall Street Journal), everything looks pretty much the same. Go on. Take a look. If you can tell which is the news article and which is the opinion piece just from glimpsing at the screenshots, then I’m guessing you work for the Wall Street Journal.

You can’t rely on a reader peering at the tiny text (“politics” and “opinion”) to determine the type of article they’re reading. And in an environment of sharable content, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like also don’t help in abstracting away the tiny differences that remain to help readers identify the difference between news and editorial.

Go on. Which is which?

This lack of distinction is why some readers of newspapers don’t seem to get there’s a difference: because everything looks the same. And it’s what the Columbia Journalism Review was touching upon when it discussed today’s WSJ editorial:

The Inquirer’s Jackson, who has served on the editorial boards of three different newspapers, agrees. “Most readers do not [understand the distinction],” he says. “Most readers believe there is collusion between the editorial writers and the news writers and editors, that one reflects the other.”

It’s easy to blame the reader, but the fault lies with the newspaper’s publisher and editors, not the readers. The news publisher hasn’t made it clear that there’s a difference between the editorial webpages and the news webpages.

How do you do it? Use a different template. Different fonts. Different layout. Maybe put big photos of the columnists on the article itself, to make it clear it’s a personal opinion, and not the newsroom’s stance.

Or kill the distinction between news articles and editorial articles, and start delivering opinion pieces that are truly representative of the newsroom’s opinion. They’re all WSJ journalists. Why are news staff and editorial staff any different?

Avoiding the word “normal”

Very few words are as telling about your worldview as the word “normal.”

I think a lot about the power of words. I started thinking about the interpretation of language in English Literature class, when I was taught to attempt to illustrate every possible understanding of a particular noun phrase to build a passable case for my interpretation of the author’s intentions.

Most of the time, I felt I was analysing why the curtains were blue.

But it gave me an appreciation for the power of words, and the improbable possibility of deriving the author’s “attitudes and values” from their choice of language. What you say and don’t say are strong indicators of who you are and what you believe.

So I believe we should stop using the word “normal” as an adjective, especially when we’re describing people and their traits.

“Normal” is a subjective term. It suggests there is some collective sense of normalcy, and connotes a value system where deviance from the standard is somehow unsavory or intolerable.

Sometimes it’s okay to use the term, particularly when such norms are fundamental: the belief in a free press to oversee and report on the government is a fundamental norm in American society.

Most of the time, though, it simply demonstrates the author’s narrow-mindedness and lack of exposure to the world.

I once called out a fellow student of journalism for describing a desire to hear a “normal accent” in a video featuring an obviously-fake British accent; while the voice was horrible, the idea of a “normal” accent only exists if you believe there is somehow a standard accent that’s desirable, and usually it’s your own.

Meanwhile, you imply you believe all other accents are less desirable, and you — epitomized by your accent — are higher status than the other people who speak different from how you do.

I don’t believe this particular individual meant any harm. But using the phrase “a normal accent” conveys a particular system of values, like using phrases such as “a normal person” to describe an able-bodied individual, or “a normal color” to describe someone’s race and ethnicity.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t common experience for you. But believing that the human attributes familiar to you is “normal” implies, at best, a naive understanding of the world around you; at worst, a narrow-minded, bigoted and regressive perspective of the rich fabric of humanity.

We have perfectly acceptable alternatives to communicate a better meaning than “normal”: common, usual, typical. It is not normal for someone in the United States to be white or Caucasian: it is common. It is not normal for black and African-American communities to be disproportionately impacted by U.S. governments, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system: it is typical.

My second lesson in journalism school was how to shorten phrases to convey meaning more compactly. This includes replacing long phrases such as “located at the intersection of Johnson and Madison Avenues” with “near Johnson and Madison.”

But my first lesson at Medill was accuracy is the single, overriding value in journalism.

In an Internet age where word limits are no longer defined by column inches on a page, we can afford to be more accurate by using more words. The shortcut afforded by “normal” is no longer appropriate.

Analytics data can and should be used to improve reporting.

Consumers are generally aware that their web interactions are tracked, and their interests and demographics are calculated. It’s time for editors and writers used that information to improve their reporting for their readers and audiences.

The role of journalism is has always been to inform people about what they need to know. For much of the profession’s history, this has been executed as what we think they need to know. The Internet has shifted that dynamic, as tracking and user profiling has become refined to the point of individuality.

Publications now need to justify their content — and their own existence — to their readers. I argue that readers no longer care about or respect the ‘division between church and state’ that previously divided the editorial and business side of a publication’s operations. Most readers don’t really care about how the media product is created.

Consider a fast-food restaurant: I highly doubt that most customers at McDonalds care about the labor division and food-preparation departments at the restaurant. As far as the customer is concerned, McDonalds is the name of a black box: an order is placed into the box, and the corresponding food items are delivered out of it. What happens inside the box is not the concern or consideration of the consumer.

Most media consumers do not care about a division between a publication’s editorial and business teams. They might say it’s a nice thing to have when told it’s to prevent ownership concerns from interfering with fair, impartial coverage, but I’m going to guess that most already believe that news sources are biased towards their owners anyway.

And if these consumers know about web analytics and demographic targeting (and a fair number do), then as far as they’re concerned, the publication already knows about them. Consumers don’t care that the data might only be held by the business and advertising departments, and editorial staff might not have access to demographic data about their online readers.

To the average reader, there’s no differentiation between The New York Times’ editorial staff, opinion staff, and business staff: it’s all The New York Times.

Given that this is how people are used to interacting with corporations and businesses, it makes no sense for editors and writers for a news publication to be kept in the dark about their online readers’ demographics.

The concern may be that having analytics and traffic data might start a war-for-the-most-clicks, without regard or consideration of an article’s depth of reporting — a fight between quantity and quality. This is a valid consideration. An ill-thought and misguided implementation of web analytics information into a community of editors and writers may lead to them believing that the numbers are the key to success. They’re not.

But taking advantage of analytics information about readers does not necessarily have to lead to an arms race for traffic numbers and a slippery-slope degradation into clickbait journalism, in the same way that newspaper editors knowing about circulation numbers didn’t always lead to sensationalist reporting.

Analytics information can serve as an additional and previously unavailable source to make decisions about coverage and editorial angles. Editors can improve stories to specifically target their reader’s actual interests and needs, rather than their own perception and assumptions about them.

Doing this means a new balance that must be found. Any publication that successfully pulls up the integration of analytics into the newsroom needs a team of editors who understand data and what it says, and can navigate through the chasm of potential problems to bring out the best of web analytics, while avoiding the pitfalls of quantity-over-quality writing.

Regarding the future of journalism

I’m experimenting with a series of posts regarding the future of the journalism industry.

I’m probably underqualified to write this as a second-year undergraduate journalism student, but I’m also told to say something whenever “something doesn’t feel quite right,” so here goes: the journalism industry is in a critical condition.

There. I said it. We’ve all known the journalism industry has been dying for some time, but I — having spent a sum of zero hours working in any bona fide media outlet — hereby declare the industry as near death. I recognize it’s a pretty bold claim.

Before the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I was hesitant to make such a point. I knew many people were going to disagree with me, and I was reasonably certain they were right; while newspapers were suffering from a slow and seemingly inevitable death, the news and journalism industry as a whole seemed to be doing all right. It certainly wasn’t the heyday of journalism, but it was all right.

Now, though, it’s become clear: the journalism industry has failed to live up to its role in this elective democracy known as the United States. Whatever your political views and affiliation, the journalism and news industry has failed you.

I firmly believe nothing is more fundamental to a healthy, functioning democracy than a well-informed electorate. The role of journalism — regardless of how it appears or who or what may be playing it — is to inform, educate, and empower the people.

Since I entered the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications over a year ago, I’ve been thinking about the future of the journalism industry, and ways to solve the problems with the model of journalism as it exists today. In these series of posts, I’ll share my thoughts, and I invite you to contribute your views and expertise to this discussion.

It’s time we worked out what this industry should look like in the 21st century.